Roderick Graham
Jul 2, 2020 · 9 min read

The Cure for Our Free Speech Problems Requires a Proper Diagnosis

Some people believe that free speech is under attack in Western society. Running afoul of free speech norms can result in the loss of one’s livelihood, being isolated, death threats, and the psychological trauma associated with social shaming.

People have misinterpreted the dynamics surrounding free speech. People in Western nations have more free speech than any group of people in modern history. There are fewer speech taboos than ever before. Moreover, the cause of these taboos are not to be found in leftist academics, but instead in broad cultural shifts in societal expectations. Unfortunately, the sanctions for violating these taboos may be the most severe since the McCarthy era.

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

The Three Speech Taboos

The Overton Window is a term used to describe the range of policy choices available to politicians at any given time. The Overton Window became a part of national conversations during the 2016 election, when the window had widened, allowing candidates to be viable by running on socialist (Bernie Sanders) and anti-immigration (Donald Trump) platforms.

I am applying this notion to conversations in everyday life and social media. We are more tolerant of different lifestyles and ideologies than we have ever been. This tolerance is associated with an ability to speak about those lifestyles and ideologies freely. Consider:

  • Women can talk publicly about their sexual experiences and desires. Only a few decades ago, it was unheard of for women to speak about orgasms or frequency of sexual activity.
  • People can talk about their queer experiences. There is a space open now for discussions of homosexuality, transitioning, and gender fluidity.
  • Religious minorities can openly talk about their religion. Or, people who have no faith can say so.
  • One can discuss socialism, communism, libertarianism, and other alternative forms of government publicly without facing McCarthyesque sanctions.
  • Some have argued that Donald Trump has expanded acceptable political discourse.

People who complain that their speech is restricted are in the unfortunate position of wanting to talk about things that fall outside of the broadest communication window in modern history. I am not arguing that it is right for their speech to be suppressed through informal norms. Instead, I am arguing that it is an inevitable byproduct of living in any society. In 1850, speaking highly of black people in South Carolina may have gotten you canceled by woke plantation owners. In 1955 if a public-school teacher spoke highly of communism, they would have been canceled by woke librarians and cafeteria ladies.

People will contend that they never know what is safe to say and what is not. I am sympathetic to this argument because the changes in speech protocols have been rapid. However, there are three general speech taboos. For heuristic purposes, I separate them. In reality, they are intertwined, and all revolve around hierarchy and inequality.

First, any speech that implies the superiority of historically dominant groups — men, white people, heterosexuals, Westerners — is taboo. These are your racist, sexist, or homophobic communications. I think most people know to avoid this type of communication. However, some people still run afoul of this rule. Sam Harris has been criticized for asserting that the Muslim religion is inimical to human flourishing. The efforts of intellectuals to trumpet Western Civilization — Douglas Murray and Niall Ferguson come to mind — can be interpreted as devaluing non-Western cultures.

A second taboo is denying the existence or experiences of racial, religious, or sexual minorities. This is a newer rule, and it is more difficult to avoid. Posting #AllLivesMatter to a social media site in response to #BlackLivesMatter is an illustration of this. Few would doubt that the lives of all people matter. However, when used as a response to #BlackLivesMatter, it can be viewed as an attempt to erase the experiences of a historically oppressed group. Or consider a trans person in the middle of a shift from male to female. They appear still to be visibly male, but they ask you to use the “she” pronoun. A refusal by you to use the pronoun is a rejection of their experience as a trans person.

A third taboo is the use of narratives that suggest inequalities are natural or the fault of the subordinate group. Consider these three statements: (1) “IQ differences between racial groups are an explanation for current levels of racial inequality,” (2) “There are only two biological sexes,” (3) “Women do not make as much as men because they avoid stressful, competitive jobs that pay well.” Recent examples include Noah Carl’s dismissal from Oxford University for his research on IQ, and J.K. Rowling facing fire for supporting the notion that transgender people could not change their biological sex.

If someone wishes to communicate ideas that violate these three taboos, they are at risk of being punished. And sometimes they are punished with cruelty that defies reason. Modern technology is the culprit.

Technology as Deterrent

Modern digital technologies keep a digital record of human behavior, and networked computing allows people to share those records easily. This has profound consequences for individuals who want to communicate ideas that are outside of the bounds of acceptable speech. Technology is used as a deterrent to potential violators of speech taboos, not unlike a policeman on patrol or a surveillance camera in a store is a deterrent to street crime.

Some criminologists attempt to quantify the effectiveness of deterrence using three measures. These measures are the certainty of getting caught, the severity of the punishment, and the celerity (swiftness) of the penalty meted out. The idea is that if you increase these three factors, a rational person will be less likely to commit the transgression. We can apply these three measures to taboo speech in the digital age:

  • Certainty — The probability of being caught violating a speech taboo is higher now than ever before. As a result, people are less likely to risk breaking speech taboos. Cell phones can take videos of people saying the wrong things — see Michael Richards and Donald Sterling. The digital artifacts you create are for all purposes permanently stored online. There have been many instances of social media posts from years back being used against someone and of emails sent in private that became public.
  • Severity — Social media increases the severity of sanctions because it immediately brings a mob of people to bear on the transgression. A drunken tweet or angry email will be met, not with a few frowns or stares from locals, but with thousands of comments and responses. If the person is employed with a company, the company risks a blow to its reputation. As such, they will inevitably fire that person. Consider the unfortunate case of Amy Cooper. Ms. Cooper violated the rules by using the race of Christian Cooper against him. The consequences for this three-minute lapse in judgment has been the loss of income, ongoing public humiliation, and death threats.
  • Celerity — Unlike a crime that can follow a years-long process of investigation, arrest, and prosecution, the punishment of a speech violation is meted out in days or hours. This is a deterrent. In the simplest terms, if the punishment occurs later, the person gets to enjoy the fruits of their transgression. However, if the penalty is immediate, they gain nothing from their act and still must bear the brunt of the sentence. Take the case of Justine Sacco from 2013. Ms. Sacco, about to board a plane to Africa for her public relations job, posted a tweet linking AIDS to Africans. By the time her plane landed, over 10,000 people had responded to her tweet, and someone took a picture of her leaving the plane and posted it online. Sacco eventually lost her job as the company worked to protect their reputation.

A Better Diagnoses Leads to Better Treatment

People have misdiagnosed the current problem of canceling, disinviting, and deplatforming. They attribute these phenomena solely to rabid leftist ideology. They claim that there is something uniquely anti-free speech in today’s progressives. They may point to critical theorists, feminists, and LGBTQ activists and claim they are leading impressionable, entitled young people by the nose. With this diagnosis, the treatment is to assert that “facts don’t care about your feelings” and then attempt to debunk many of the ideas bubbling up from college campuses — “You assert heteronormativity, well let me show you this data debunking your ideas.”

This is misguided. There is nothing wrong with an academic debate about heteronormativity, gender fluidity, white fragility, and the like. But what we call cancel culture and wokeness is not some niche set of ideas playing out only college campuses. There has been a generational shift in how people understand human differences, hierarchy, and how to communicate about these differences. The people 40 years and younger interpret their world differently than older generations. This dynamic is the rule of societies, not the exception. You can no more convince a young person in 2020 that there is no such thing as gender fluidity with “the facts,” any more than a WWII veteran could have convinced his daughter in the 1960’s not to waste her time going to college with “the facts.”

The proper diagnosis of our current cancel culture is two-fold:

  1. Most of the population that matters for these social issues — young adults, people with college educations or more, people in the middle class and above, intellectual elites and influencers — generally agree on what is acceptable.
  2. We live in an age where technology can be leveraged by the ascendant group to punish transgressions of acceptable speech harshly.

I suggest that given this diagnosis, more effective treatments can be administered.

First, one needs to rethink how they communicate when their desired speech is potentially taboo. This is not unlike entering into a new social setting and modifying your speech patterns to fit the norms of that setting. Moreover, one can take advantage of a large communication window and modify their discourse to fit within that window.

I can use myself as an example. I think that the external force of racism is easily the most crucial factor in understanding racial inequality. I also believe explanations will always be incomplete without exploring the cultural choices of black people. But talking about culture as being deficient or pathological (e.g., not valuing education or stable home environments) is violating a taboo.

Fortunately, I live at a time when there are so many ways of expressing ideas. Instead of framing analyses in terms of what black people don’t do culturally, I can talk about what they are doing and how to leverage it (I have taken this approach in the past with technology usage in the black community). I can use the language of self-empowerment, lived experiences, and self-determination — words that fall well within the boundaries of acceptable communication.

Second, a focus should be placed on the punishment for violating taboos. We can construct new norms around social shaming that reduce the penalties for speech violations. As far as I know, few people have taken this approach. Some Twitter users have adopted a stance of not sharing videos of people that may get them harassed (e.g., sharing a “Karen” video). I would extend this idea outward to not sharing direct messages, texts, emails, or other communication done in private. I would also suggest that people adopt the practice of not videoing people and placing it on social media without their permission.

The Only Thing Constant is Change

Some readers of this essay may find my claims disheartening. I am implying that there is nothing to be done about holding opinions subject to severe sanctions — other than mitigating the punishments and finding new ways to communicate. They may have been expecting some broadside against leftist identity politics or a takedown of a liberal academic’s ideas (as I write this White Fragility is the term du jour).

But what value is there in yet another essay that ultimately boils down to either “I am going to destroy this leftist argument with these four facts,” or “here are the logical fallacies present in this leftist academic’s work”? Those essays allow people to stay in their comfort zones and consume pleasing content. They may also arm readers with rhetorical weapons they can use to ward off any attempts by others to modify their views.

I would be guilty of a kind of malpractice if I took this approach as an academic. It is clear to me that what we are seeing is not purely ideological, but a cultural shift in speech taboos, and a new technological landscape that allows people to punish those taboos. The upshot of this is perspective is that cultural change is constant. The woke of today won’t be the woke of tomorrow. That’s for sure. In that light, developing the competencies for dealing with free speech taboos in the digital age is likely more beneficial and lasting.

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Roderick Graham

Written by

Rod is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University.

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Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

Roderick Graham

Written by

Rod is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Old Dominion University.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +793K followers.

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